Climate change and construction growth exacerbate the impact of fires in the United States

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The west coast is being consumed by fire. In California, 900,000 hectares have already burned, the largest area burned in a year in the state.

From the state of Washington, on the border with Canada, to San Diego, at the gates of Mexico, the West Coast of the United States it is being eaten by fire.

Aggravated by winds and drought, the current series of wildfires is of unprecedented scale. But, dire as the numbers are for this start of the fire season, with current policies unchanged, all indications are that they will simply be better than for years to come. “I would like the 2020 fires to be an anomaly,” but “Unfortunately they are a barometer of the future”warns Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

In California 900,000 hectares have already burned, the largest area burned in a year in the state, and the fire season is just beginning. The August Complex Fire alone, a megafire made up of 37 different fires that started on August 17 with a lightning strike in the Mendocino Forest, has devastated more than 300,000 hectares. There have been 15 fatalities, but the authorities fear that the count will worsen as there are large devastated areas that have not yet been accessed.

In Oregon 40,000 people have been evacuated. The flames have engulfed five entire cities south of Portland and half a million more people are ready to leave their homes at any moment. Among the tens of thousands of evacuees in California are residents of Butte County, the scene of the 2018 fire that reduced Paradise to ashes, leaving 86 dead in its wake.

Fire is part of the California landscape. With more intensity in recent years as a result of climate change, it always comes back. The difference is that more and more houses and people are in its path. But where less than four million people lived a century ago, now 40 million live. One in three homes built in the state since 1990 is in areas prone to wildfires, according to a University of California study. About 11 million people live in forested urban interface areas, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Although they are now overwhelmed by the breadth and human and financial cost of the fires in these areas, it has been the administrations themselves that for decades have promoted these urban developments in wild natural landscapes to alleviate housing problems in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay.

Some authors denounce Americans’ “obsession” with single-family homes and the car despite its ecological impact. “Perhaps the suburban dream has always been that, a dream that can only continue without consequences as long as we are still asleep at the wheel,” says Gernot Wagner, a professor at New York University and author of Climate shock, in an analysis of the coincidence of the climate and housing crises titled The California Nightmare.

The devastation of recent years has prompted California to rethink its relationship with fire. At issue is above all the fire suppression policy initiated in the US a century ago, after the traumatic fire that in 1910 crossed several states in the west of the country and caused 85 deaths (76 of them were firefighters). The dimensions of that fire, however, they are less in amplitude and intensity than those of these years.

The effective policy of suppressing fires around the cities resulted in a huge forest density in a few decades. In the eighties it began to be seen that it could be problematic, pure fuel. The extreme weather conditions of recent years have exacerbated the impact of the fires. Timidly and due to tragedies, controlled burning, an ancient fire control tool, is beginning to be included in forest management policies.

But these practices, as well as selective logging and other scientifically recommended control and mitigation measures, including toughening building regulations, have little incentive, many naysayers and little budget. In California, the use of good fire has been hampered due to the strong urban development and the misgivings of the population about their risks and the environmental pollution they produce.

After two seasons of disastrous fires, California decided in 2018 to triple the amount of forest land that should be burned in a controlled manner, about 50,000 hectares per year. The figure is much lower than it should be, some 800,000 hectares per year, according to some studies.

On the West Coast the threat is fire. In the southern US and Florida in particular, the ground zero of climate change in the North American country, water. And as in the southern state, insurance companies want to ignore customers who live in risk areas. California decreed a one-year moratorium in December to prevent up to 800,000 people they will run out of coverage. It is not clear what will happen next, although the state already offers special policies for certain areas.

The drop in temperatures yesterday gave a small truce to the 20,000 firefighters fighting the flames in the different states of the region. In California, the winds have subsided and the dense smoke that has stained the sky of San Francisco an apocalyptic orange also helped to block the sun’s rays, which has helped the temperatures drop.

Climate change debate is over. Come to the state of California and see it with your own eyes ”, declared the governor of the state, Gavin Newsom, in the middle of a charred landscape. “It is not something not even debatable. What we live is what many people have predicted decades ago. This is the future of the whole country if we do not act quickly against climate change and get rid of all the nonsense that a small group of people has spread, “he says.

Climate change is, however, an absent issue from the November presidential election campaign. “The science is clear, climate change is an existential threat to our way of life. President Trump can deny the reality, but the facts are undeniable, “said the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden yesterday. Trump, who will visit California on Monday to be informed of the situation, refuses to include climate change among the causes of the devastating fires in recent years. “They have to clean the floor!”he said at a recent rally.

Beatriz Navarro. The vanguard


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